Friday, October 19, 2007

Why can't you be like ... Kari Lehtonen

It's unfortunate that Kari Lehtonen's latest injury happened just as he was given new life -- life after Bob Hartley.

From Jeff Marek of HNIC Radio in his blog on CBC's website:

"One step forward, two steps back for the Atlanta Thrashers, who last night, picked up their first win of the season (5-3 against the Rangers) but in the process lost netminder Kari Lehtonen to a groin injury. Ouch, that hurts. Lehtonen has been described by insiders in Atlanta as standing the most to gain now that Bob Hartley has been punted. The two were said to never see eye-to-eye and Hartley was perhaps spoiled in Colorado and expected all goalies to be and behave like Patrick Roy."

Hartley -- who mentions Roy's name so frequently it could be its own drinking game - has been Lehtonen's coach for the young man's entire NHL career. We would question the parenting skills of a father who said "why can't you be like your older brother," so you have to question someone who, even indirectly through the media, implied "Why can't you be like Patrick Roy?"

There's no question that Lehtonen's confidence suffered under Hartley's watch, who alternated between praise and criticism of him. He was impatient with Lehtonen and his calm, laid-back personality. Hartley mistook a lack of fire-breathing passion for laziness, when it just wasn't in the stoic Finn's personality to be that way. Pasi Nurminen is a Finnish goaltender who might pass Hartley's litmus test, but he was acknowledged to be unusual when he was playing.

The groin injuries have not helped matters. Lehtonen was often out when the team needed him most. It was another source of tension between him and Hartley.

Lehtonen won the 2002 Finnish elite league championship as an 18-year-old. He was a two-time winner of the best goaltender award in that league, and was playoff MVP in 2001. His accomplishments led to him being the highest-ever European goalie drafted at No. 2 overall in 2002.

Those accomplishments, and his play in Chicago in the AHL, are a stark contrast to his work in Atlanta. Fast forwarding to last spring's playoff first-round series, Hartley pulled him twice, letting backup Johan Hedberg start the fourth and final game. It's a prime example of the kind of thing that doesn't do much for a 23-year-old's confidence.

Confidence is a tricky thing, but it's the most important tool in a goaltender's toolbox. The Lehtonen who returns from injury may well be someone that the fans in Atlanta have never met.
Lehtonen himself may not even fully realize how much the mental game has affected him. But to those who knew him before, the contrast is clear.

The contrast is also in his recent non-Thrashers play. Playing for his country, Lehtonen sparkled this past summer in the World Championships, helping Finland to a silver medal.

If he can finally put the groin injuries behind him, Lehtonen's outlook for future performance is very bright. The next few weeks off will definitely give him time to clear his head and rebuild his confidence.

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